Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Circle South America: Costa Rica and Panama No. 1

Costa Rica and Panama

Dear Family and Friends,

Our arrival the day before yesterday at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica confirmed why Vicki and I believe this to be one of the most beautiful countries in Central America, if not anywhere in the tropics. The dense, lush jungle, the sprawling, fertile valleys, the spectacular coastlines, the multiple active volcanoes and prodigious animal life truly make this small, friendly country very special.

This was our third visit to Costa Rica, which means “Rich Coast” in Spanish, a name given to it by Christopher Columbus, but our first time to the Caribbean side. Previously we had visited on the Pacific side and Central Valley area where we toured the banana and coffee plantations, roamed around the Poas and Arenal Volcanoes and parks, shopped and stayed in San Jose, the capital and lounged on Jaco Beach. This time we took a tour up to the Veraqua Rainforest and National Park, about an hour’s drive up into the mountainous jungle from the port.

As you will see from the photos, we were in the middle of one of the densest jungles we have ever been in and I mean in the middle of nowhere. The road became so rough during the last 30 minutes of the drive that two of our tour buses broke down (one engine failure, one flat tire) and some of our fellow passengers had to walk or wait for relief busses to be brought in. The silence in the jungle was only broken by the call of an occasional Toucan, the screech of a distant Holler monkey (baboon family) or a bitching passenger trekking up the rocky road.
Costa Rica has an abundance of wildlife. There are 168 varieties of snakes, including 22 that are highly poisonous like the infamous Bushwacker, killed and eaten by Michael Douglas in “Romancing the Stone”. We got to see several varieties as well as many of the hundreds of frogs and toads native to Costa Rica. Some of these frogs are no bigger than the tip of my little finger and brightly colored. The brighter the colors, the more poisonous these tiny frogs are. One we saw was about the size of my thumb to the first knuckle and it is so poisonous that merely touching the secretion from its skin can cause brain and nervous system damage, even death within “five seconds”!
There are over 12,000 varieties of butterflies in Costa Rica and we saw collections of about 11,999, both mounted and live in captivity (I actually lost count at about 9,000 or so). We took a tram ride down to a trail with 382 stairs (I got that count right) leading to a secluded waterfall called Puma Falls because of the frequent sightings of that animal in the area. Costa Rica is a country of numerous micro ecological systems. It can be sunny and warm in one area and rainy and cool just a few miles further up the road.

Costa Rica has mandatory education K through 10 and it is free through the university level. English is a mandatory second language and the literacy rate is estimated at above 95 %. Costa Rica has no military. It was abandoned in 1948 and they, like Switzerland, are a neutral country. The natives are light-skinned Spaniards and a gorgeous people. As you can tell, Costa Rica is one of our favorites.

Our next stop was Panama and we got to the Caribbean locks at about 8:00 AM. Our cruise line pays a premium to have a set time to enter the locks at Gatun. The fee to pass through the Panama Canal is based on gross tonnage and The Mariner’s fee was right at $ 150,000.00. There are three locks at Gatun which raise the ship up 26 meters total to the level of Gatun Lake, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The Canal is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and about 800 ships a month transit the Canal which is manned by 9,000 year-round employees. If you want to know more about the Panama Canal pick up the book, “Passages Between the Seas”, by David McCollough. It is the most complete history I have ever read on the subject. Built at a total cost (French and then American) of $ 635 million, a staggering amount for that time, The Panama Canal operates today with over 90 % of the original equipment it opened with on August 15, 1914 and is a spectacular engineering feat.

After going through the Gatun locks we spent the day on our balcony, watching the 80 kilometer passage through the lake, the Culebra cut (the most narrow passage in the Canal), the Gullaird cut, into the Pedro Miguel lock (1) and finally the Miraflores locks (2) down to the Pacific Ocean where the capital, Panama City, is located. It is much larger and more modern city than we imagined, with a thriving economy (we counted sixteen cranes constructing new skyscrapers), but we did not stop there.

Currently we are headed due south and just crossed the Equator (0° 0’ 0” latitude). We crossed it for the third time. See photos here and in subsequent blogs. We will be in Manta, Ecuador tomorrow and then on to Peru. Hope you are enjoying these travel blogs. Feel free to post comments if you like, we would love to hear from you.

God Bless you all, Jud and Vicki

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